Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Is Crap Still Crap, Even When It's Important?

I have had the dubious privilege of looking at some thousands of bad images as I work to select images for "Why Photographs Work". I had a look at Review Santa Fe as you can go to their website and look at previous accepted photographers - I was horrified at the quality of the images. There seems to be the idea in fine art circles that if an idea is sufficiently original, or if the subject is sufficiently important, that image quality matters not at all. The result is an incredible number of very banal, very ordinary, very boring images.

It is true that good composition and proper lighting and care to emphasize the important within the image are simply tools, and not goals of themselves. These tools exist however to help us get the most out of images, to understand the message as clearly as possible, to find hidden depths in images and to pick up the emotion created.

In many of the images I saw, of poverty and violence, of pollution and of life in genera, there has been no attempt to make the message clearer, to help the viewer understand what's going on or what's implied.

It is helpful to use other creative endevours to illustrate the point.

It is possible to write a novel about poor people in which the boring ordinary daily details of the characters lives overwhelms any message. There is no plot, we don't care about the characters because they have not been properly developed. Books like these rarely get read beyond the first chapter because they are boring. The worst don't even get published because the publisher knows they don't have a hope.

Oddly, in photography, there is no one who filters work, who says "thank you for your submission but your work is unsuited to our needs".

In selecting images for this book, I have found some wonderful images and some are far removed from the kind of thing I normally like. There is a manipulated SX-70 image that is wonderful, a Holga image, some composite exposures. There are HDR images in which the HDR serves to help instead of make the image look peculiar. There are images in which nothing is sharp, or where trickery has been used to great effect.

But people, there is so much bad photography out there, that has been promoted, celebrated, awarded, and admired. it is very sad.

Another analogy would be music. I don't especially like jazz, but I can recognize the skill involved in creating it. Rap music is 21st century poetry, I can admire the linguistic skills, but with all this crappy photography, I can't see the skill. The deficiency might be mine, but I suspect not. The emperor wears no clothes.


Luis Sanchez said...

Maybe it is. Maybe it is crap.
Lately I have been reflecting on the questions: what is beauty all about? What is art? How do I know that a photo is artistic, a lousy representation of life stuff or just someone pushing originality to become known ?
After checking hundred of photos of world known photographer, I have become desolated. I do not comprehend how easy is to find beauty or meaning in early 20 century painting while so difficult in the current graphic “accepted” world. After all, is not photography a sibling of painting but better?
Sadly I am accepting that only time will tell the difference between good and bad photography. Photography is so young and we are bombarded with so much junk.

ilachina said...

One side of me agrees wholeheartedly with you (I remember seeing a book that Brooks Jensen also panned - heavily, and rightly IMHO - about "peeing" (!) Junk is junk, end of story! On the other hand, my other side says: this is *my* aesthetic (and in the above instance, in happens to agree - I suspect - with the aesthetic of many other people). But it is still just *my* aesthetic. Thus my other side does not permit me to take any strong steps beyond the simple assertion: "I happen to find *this* or *that* junk for these reasons, trhat have meaning to *me*, but I respect the fact that otehrs may disagree." Aesthetics, as you know, cannot be drived from an equation or a principle of physics (though Christopher Alexander may disagree with that(!)

In any case, I look forward to seeing the fruits of your new labors, if only to gain a deeper insight into what "George Barr" (a photographer whose work *I* respect) considers "fine-art".

George Barr said...

Yes, clearly some people enjoy that photography - enough to pay money to publish it, award prizes for it, even buy prints - but one wonders if they are doing it because they like the work or think they should admire it - do they hang it because it's clever or fashionable or because they can't live without it?


doonster said...

I decided to go off and spend some time at the Review Santa Fe site, and I must disagree with you.
I found there to be an awful lot of quality photography, with very good content.
true, there is a leaning towards a certain style of contemporary presentation but that does not make it less valid or of lower quality. I also think there is (and it's inherent in the submission criteria) a leaning towards work to be viewed collectively rather than as individual images.
I think sometimes photographers focus their critique too much on technical qualities of photography rather than content.
I liked most of what I saw.

And indirectly, on your idea of a plotless novel not getting published - Ben Okri won the Booker for just such a novel (The Famished Road), although it is very heavy going.

Larry said...

It sounds like you've been struggling with some of the same issues I have about current trends in photography. Here's what I wrote recently on my Facebook page:

I'm trying to figure out what conceptual art, in particular conceptual photography, is all about. I read just now that "Typical conceptual works include photographs, texts, maps, graphs, and image-text combinations that are deliberately rendered visually uninteresting or trivial in order to divert attention to the 'ideas' they express."

From my narrow viewpoint it seems that many photographers today have achieved the first part of this equation for conceptual art: they have successfully rendered images that are visually uninteresting or trival. Whether they have done that intentionally or not is not always clear.

Given this description of conceptual art, I wonder if any "successful" conceptual art can be considered beautiful by some aesthetic criteria or another. Or, does it always have to suck visually to be considered good art? What if the idea the conceptual artist is trying to express is a beautiful idea, does the visual rendering still have to suck?

Sandy Wilson said...

Example, If I had a genuine picture of the Loch Ness Monster out of the water, even if it was a crap photograph it would still be a very important photograph.

However in other circumstances we as photographers have to balance the artistic aspects against the technical aspects in our photography.

How good or how bad a photograph is can only be determined by the test of time. therefore we will have to wait and see if modern conceptual photographs will stand the test of time.

Look at the amount of artists that were never really recognised in their life times, only to be recognized long after they were deceased. The same applies to photographers.

Geoffrey said...

In my limited experience with the world of "art with a capital A", this is a common syndrome. Current art world convention appears to insist that the 'conceit', the clever idea behind a work of art, is the only thing that matters. Actual craft, skill at execution, is contemptuously dismissed as irrelevant. I first encountered this in Tom Wolf's eulogy for Frederick Hart, the realist sculptor. Wolf was appalled by the contempt for Hart's work that prevailed in the 'high art' circles in New York, especially since it was specifically because of Hart's fantastic craftsmanship rather than in spite of it.

Joe Lipka said...

George, you missed it. Contemporary photography is means to initiate a discussion while eating dry cheese on stale crackers with a plastic glass of wine decanted from a foil lined box. The photograph is a catalyst for an appropriately abstract discussion of whatever topic seems to be socially relevant at the moment. The interpretation can change with each viewer because everyone's opinion is correct. It’s almost performance art where the art is in the conversation about what the photograph could mean.
I like to think of contemporary academic photography (the source of all the aspiring “career fine art photographers” that are drawn to photo festivals as a moth is to a flame) as what happens when technology has become so easy that it allows virtually anyone to create a photograph before they can come up with a good idea for their photograph. In summary, they spend a thirtieth of a second to make the photograph and the rest of their life trying to explain what it means.

George Barr said...


brilliant comment. Explains everything.
I shall rest in peace.


david mannion said...

Why is it sad that there is "so much bad photography out there"? Maybe there is something in it that you are missing - maybe not, but we live in a global market economy and if photographers whose work we don't like are winning prizes and making money, our available response is not to buy. "Letting one go" about how banal, boring and ordinary the work is of photographers who are exploring the edges of what we consider to be "good" is counter productive to my way of thinking, in that seeeks to establish a baseline from which work is judged and could be construed as stifling the creativity of sensitive souls such as myself. Enjoyable rant though...

soboyle said...

Much of contemporary photography seems to be an examination of the ordinary, a look at how extraordinary the ordinary can be. There might be something to that. We are living in strange times, with collisions between nature and man happening in many surprising and alarming ways. New definitions of ordinary. But the photographs seem almost accidental, not thought out, walk up - snap - walk away, intentionally missing the elements that I would consider interesting in a photograph. So we are left with these little bits of information that seem so accidental. Like the photographer couldn't be bothered to spend more time working the subject, making the subject more poignant.

Anonymous said...

@ "conceptual art":
Concepts need thought and thought needs words, sentences, ideas, arguments.
Photography is a very poor medium for developing and communicating concepts. And if you aks the artist or art critic to translate the supposed concept into words, what you usually get is a most trivial statement that would never pass your threshold of agttention.

Photography, in my understanding, is not an appeal to the viewers' intellect, but to their interest in the visual world and to their pleasure in esthetic perfection.

George Barr said...

The last two comments are very interesting. Shaun suggests that what we perceive as very ordinary (and by implication not worth photographing) is exactly what people like Walker Evans photographed back then, and to some extent David Plowden did in more recent times. Those images are beautiful. It seems to me that photographing the ordinary, with no tip of the hat to composition, technical quality, clear message, emotional impact, or frankly even exemplary illustration is just not the same thing at all - I would argue they missed the boat - and we won't be admiring their work (ok, they won't) in 30 years or more.

Anonymous has it exactly right - it is as if they are using the wrong medium for their message - they shouldn't be photographers.


Sarah said...

I have been confused about who says what about art for years. I still will visit a gallery or even museum to leave just as confused wondering where was that art coming from??....Business skills are one of the few answers I can rationalize. Art still is political after all.
Side note: the photograph can be interpreted on so many different levels from initial perception to the unspoken metaphors seen only by a trained eye.

Lots more to ponder.